Thursday, 18 January 2018

Kent Fitness League 2017/18: Minnis Bay

The fifth fixture of the 2017/18 Kent Fitness League season was Minnis Bay. It is one of those venues that some runners love and others avoid like the plague. The reason lies at around the 7 kilometre point where the course leaves the main path and the runners have to face the six dykes (or ditches).

In true cross-country style the dykes are generally muddy and possibly also full of water - depending on how wet the weather has been dictates how muddy they are. Typically you'll find a few slightly muddy dykes and one or two really muddy ones filled with water which is sometimes above knee height.

photos: dani / eden summers

The January 2018 race attracted a field of 381 runners which was a record attendance for this venue. This was probably aided by the decent weather forecast. My club, Dartford Harriers, won the team competition, but as we have such a strong team, I was not one of the scoring runners. In the three occasions I have now run here it was the first time I haven't scored for the team at this venue.

Anyway, my race was fairly non-eventful. I started close enough to the front to avoid any holdups and was able to run at my chosen pace/effort level almost all the way round. The long outward 4 kilometre stretch parallel to the seafront was slightly splashy and ensured that my feet were soaked through from an early point in the race.

photos: funk dooby / brian pitkin

I find the toughest things about this course are the long, long stretches of running in a straight line. The course is essentially one huge triangle. Underfoot was generally quite uneven with patches of stones every now and then which I tried to avoid as I was wearing my spikes. The turn inland was followed by more running in a straight line, and then more of the same alongside the railway line.

It wasn't long before those dykes were upon us. One of the runners in the group I was in made a move and got a few spaces ahead which reduced his waiting time for each dyke. By the end of this section he had gained about 20 seconds on me. I've noted this tactic for next year.

photos: funk dooby / dawn granger

I had a further hold-up during a short, twisty, single track trail when the runner in front of me took this a little slower than he had been running. This resulted in the runners behind me gaining some ground. I was well and truly knackered towards the end and after running over the four sand dunes didn't have much left for a sprint finish.

The full results were available a few days later and I was pleased to have beaten my previous year's time. It was only 2 seconds faster, but I'll take it! Lastly, there were quite a few great photographers out on the course, so I'd like to say a special thank you to you all for capturing all the great moments in this race.

photos: dawn granger

Official Results Page: KFL Minnis Bay January 2018

My results:
Overall position: 81 / 381
Gender position: 77 / 262
Age category position (VM40-44): 10 / 25
Official time: 43.17
Rating: 70.99

Other links:

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Houghton Hall parkrun

The town of Houghton Regis, in the ceremonial county of Bedfordshire, has a population of around 17,000 people. The town has a long history and was recorded in the Domesday book as Houstone. For many years the town was a royal manor and the royal suffix 'Regis' became part of the town's name.

In the post-war years, the town was chosen as one suitable for the 'London Overspill' project (essentially the creation of New Towns and new housing estates in existing towns outside of London in order to relocate large numbers of people). The town is contiguous with Dunstable and Luton.

houghton regis

Between the years 1654-1700, a large country house, Houghton Hall, was built and this sat within its magnificent grounds. The southern portion of the grounds have now been developed into housing and industrial units. The house, while still standing, is now used as offices. The remaining land has not been developed and this survives as Houghton Hall Park.

The park covers an area of 17 hectares and is a mix of open grassland, outcrops of trees and sections of woodland. A new visitor centre has been built and opened in October 2017 - this contains a cafe and toilets as well as bookable spaces for the local community to use. The park is popular with dog walkers and from what I could see, they don't seem to be very good at picking up their dog's waste - the grass areas in particular were strewn with the stuff.

houghton hall park

The reason I had visited was, of course, to take part in Houghton Hall parkrun. The event had it's inaugural running on 23 December 2017 and was an instant hit with attendance figures hovering at just under 200 even after just five events. The event had been due to start a week earlier on 16 December 2017 but icy conditions lead to the planned-inaugural being cancelled.

I drove to Houghton Regis and parked in the onsite car park just off Park Road North. The car park has a three hour parking limit, but is free-of-charge for all users of the park. By the time 9am came around it was bursting at the seams with cars - some were squeezed in non-spaces, so if driving, arrive early or just use a town centre car park and jog/walk the rest of the way.

the cycle network path / chicane

Houghton Regis, Dunstable and Luton have a pretty good cycling network so makes cycling a viable option for many. There are cycle racks just next to the visitor centre. As for public transport, the nearest train stations look to be Leagrave, which is a suburb of Luton a few miles away. There are some buses which stop in Houghton Regis, and the details are covered on the event's official course page.

The course here takes place over two-and-a-half laps, mostly around the perimeter of the park. It's a flat course and underfoot you will mostly find man-made hard surfaces. Some sections go through the woods, but even here the surface underfoot is solid.

woodland walk

At time of writing (Jan 2018) the course page says that the course takes place on grass and trail (the only grass is about 10 metres at the very end) - this lead to me wearing my trail shoes, but road shoes would've been the better option.

The lap of the park itself is pretty decent. The paths tend to have a meandery feel about them and the views across the former Houghton Hall Estate are pleasant. The sections through the wooden area are twisty and lots of fun.

houghton hall park

There is a section on the west side of the park where the run leaves the park and joins the main National Cycle Network - route 6 (watch out for cyclists). The points where you exit and re-enter the park have those anti-cyclist chicane thingys in place, so you may have to slow down briefly and mind you don't bash yourself on them.

With the two-and-a-half laps complete, the finish funnel is found on the grass by the side of the path - it is not in the same spot as indicated on the official course page (as of Jan 2018), but you can see it if you check my GPS file of the route. Please note, the start point on the day I ran seems to have been in a different position to what is shown on the course page, and to what had been used during some previous events.

the last section / visitor centre

Barcode scanning takes place at the finish line and the volunteers and participants have their post-event social gathering in the cafe in the visitor centre. The results for event 5 were processed and available to view online by the time I arrived back home. I had recorded the run using my Garmin and you can see my GPS data on Strava. You can also view my Relive course fly-by on YouTube, here: Houghton Hall parkrun Relive Course Fly-by. The volunteers had been fab, so big thanks to them all.

Related links:

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Kent Fitness League 2017/18: Fowlmead

The fourth race of the 2017/18 Kent Fitness League (my venue info page) was held at Betteshanger Park. The park was formerly called Fowlmead and, for now at least, the cross country race has retained this name. This venue is the furthest drive of the XC season for me, and it took about 1 hour and 20 minutes to travel there from Dartford.

In fact I almost didn't make it to the race at all - The day before I had an unexplained sharp pain on the inside of my left shin and thought I would have to sit this one out. Fortunately it wasn't too bad on the day and I made the last minute decision to go ahead.

The race is run on a two-and-a-bit lap clockwise course around the country park. Underfoot is mostly hard surfaces, but can be quite uneven at times. I can't imagine there would ever be any need to wear spikes on this course, but trail shoes are quite handy.

dartford harriers [photos: eden / dani]

Every time I have run this race the course has been slightly different. In previous years I remember running a short off-road section that begins with quite a steep, uneven downhill. This section was missing from the course - I'm not entirely sure why, but I would imagine that it was for safety reasons.

The big story from this year's race was the wind. The forecast predicted 45mph winds and I can confirm that it was spot on. It was blowing from the East which meant that there was a headwind along the straight at the end of each lap and it was pretty brutal.

I found that I felt ok on the first lap, but that headwind at the end of lap 1 knocked the steam out of me and I really struggled on lap 2 resulting in a positive split of almost a minute. But that was fine because cross-country can quite often work out like that. On lap two I would have preferred to have been chasing and overtaking, but instead I was the one being overtaken.

dartford harriers [photos: funkdooby]

In the end the wind took its toll and gave me an earache as I reached the final kilometre. Then it was a case of pushing into the 45mph gusts all the way to the finish line. Totally shattered, I wandered over to the cafe to get out of the wind. Yes, I was cold, but it was the earache that most bothered me. Once out of the wind it eased off and I felt fine.

Upon crossing the finish line I had been handed finishing position token 68, which was my highest finishing position of the season so far. The full results were processed and available online a few days later.

Official Results: KFL Fowlmead January 2018

My race stats:
Overall position: 68 / 341
Gender position: 65 / 230
Official time: 34:57
Rating: 72.17

Data etc:
My GPS course data: KFL Fowlmead January 2018
My Relive course fly-by video: KFL Fowlmead January 2018

Additional link: My Kent Fitness League venue information page

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Cambridgeshire parkrun venues

The ceremonial county of Cambridgeshire is made up of Cambridgeshire County Council and the unitary authority of Peterborough City Council.

The pins on the map mark the locations of the parkruns within the county. The green pins show the venues I have officially visited while the red pins are venues I still need to visit. The map below covers 5k events only, not junior parkruns.

Cambridge - Milton Country Park, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
Course: One small clockwise lap, followed by two large anti-clockwise laps
Underfoot: tbc
Profile: tbc
Notes: Narrow, twisty paths - No dogs permitted.
Further reading: not yet visited

Huntingdon - Hinchingbrooke Country Park, Brampton Road, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
Course: Two anti-clockwise laps
Underfoot: Mostly concrete (tbc) but also some grass
Profile: tbc
Further reading: not yet visited

March - West End Park, City Road, March, Cambridgeshire
Course: Four clockwise laps
Underfoot: Grass with some paths
Profile: Flat
Notes: The course may contain some steps (tbc)
Further reading: not yet visited

Peterborough - Ferry Meadows Country Park, Ham Lane, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire
Course: A loop around a lake, followed by an out-and-back in the opposite direction
Underfoot: Mostly tarmac with some grass
Profile: tbc
Notes: Confirmed measured by a qualified course measurer
Further reading: not yet visited

Wimpole Estate - Wimpole Estate, Arrington, Royston, Cambridgeshire
Course: One lap
Underfoot: Off-road - Mostly grass and dirt (mud).
Profile: Undulating
Notes: Stunning location - There may have been some slight course alterations since my visit
Further reading: My Wimpole Estate parkrun blog post (normal course as of 2013)

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Rushmere parkrun

On the Buckinghamshire / Bedfordshire border, just to the north of Leighton Buzzard, you will find a vast area of woodland which covers many differently named areas. Historically, parts of this woodland would have been part of the Stockgrove Estate or the Bragenham Manor Estate.

The area known as Stockgrove Country Park was opened up to the public in 1972, and then in 2011 this was joined by the adjacent Rushmere Country Park. The two are now effectively managed as one park by The Greensand Trust. The entire chain of woods, which also includes King's Wood and others, cover a total of 400 acres, with Rushmere making up just over half of this.

rushmere country park

I drove over to Rushmere Country Park to take part in Rushmere parkrun as part of my New Year's Day 2018 double with Bedford parkrun which I had ran about an hour earlier (blog here). The main entrance to the woods is just off Linslade Road, which is in Bedfordshire.

To enter the park in a vehicle you must pass through a barrier and drive along a fairly long, winding road which leads all the way to the car park and visitor centre. As of January 2018 there is a flat £3 charge for parking and this must be paid at the barrier machine when you exit the park (remember to have some change handy).

start / opening section / giant's chair

As I understand it, the land that Rushmere Country Park sits on is owned by Central Bedfordshire Council. However, the majority of this land does not lie within Bedfordshire at all - in fact the car park, visitor centre and the entire parkrun course are entirely within the adjacent county of Buckinghamshire.

Travel by any method other than a vehicle is a tad tricky. Cyclists can of course use the roads and there are a couple of covered bicycle stands where they can be safely secured. If attempting travel by train then Leighton Buzzard is the station to aim for - it's three miles away and it doesn't look like there are any buses to use for the onward journey.

around the course - early to mid-lap

Upon arrival you will find toilets in the visitor centre just next to the car park. The main meeting point for the parkrun is on the open grass field adjacent to the car park. This is also where the first-timers briefing and then the main briefing are held. The participants are then ushered a hundred metres or so along the path to the starting point.

The course for this parkrun consists of running a shade under two, undulating (some would say hilly), anti-clockwise laps around the forest trail paths. Underfoot you will find a mixture of dirt and mud. In the winter there is a significant amount of mud to trudge through but given the nature of the course, I would swear trail shoes year-round here.

around the course - mid-lap

So from the very beginning, the participants head along the generally firm, easy access path that provides links to all of the exciting, every day family fun things within the woods. Runners pass a few sculptured benches and then the Giant's Chair which is great fun for kids and adults alike. There are also other sculptures (including a giant spider) and fairy doors to seek out with the family post-run.

However the parkrun course soon leaves the family friendly areas, the paths get muddier (seriously, it's a mud bath at times) and tree roots lie in wait, just waiting the grab an ankle. A runner in front of me twisted his ankle and it sounded pretty painful - fortunately he was right next to one of the wonderful marshals when it happened so help was at hand. Even though some runners may prefer to wear spikes on this type of course, the venue management have requested that spikes are not worn.

around the course - mid-lap

The country park is made up of conifer plantations, deciduous woodland, lowland heath and meadows. Most of the trees are fir, pine and spruce which were planted in the 1940s while the area was still part of the aforementioned estate. There are also pockets of ancient forest. It's also significant for wildlife which includes bats, adders, lizards, rare butterfly species, and topping the bill are the ten pairs of Grey Herons that breed in the heronry which you can see from the visitor centre.

Part of the lap is run on a bridleway which is popular with horse riders, so participants are not permitted to run with a dog at this venue. Also, I'd think twice before running with a buggy here, especially in the winter and/or if you're not experienced with off-road buggy running. Towards the end of the lap, participants can enjoy the view across the Buckinghamshire countryside as the route follows the western boundary of the woods.

towards the end of the lap

The last section of the lap brings the runners back past the car park and onto the grass field where the briefing took place. At the end of the first lap, participants simply follow the route back around. Upon reaching this point at the end of the second lap, the finish line will be a welcome sight! Barcodes are scanned right next to the finish line and then it's time for something really special...

If you think you've run a personal best, you can pick up the mallet and strike the PB Gong! Seriously, this thing is incredible and as it was my first run here, it was technically a course best. So I grabbed the mallet and let the gong ring out. Afterwards I headed back onto the course to take some photos and I could hear the gong resonating through the woods everytime it rang. Brilliant!

towards the end of the lap (more)

Once all of the participants have finished, the team head to the Tree Tops Cafe at the visitor centre for coffee. The results for event #113 were soon processed and a total of 150 people had completed the course - this is almost bang-on the average for this venue (currently 144.7).

I recorded my run with my Garmin and you can see the course data, here: Rushmere parkrun GPS data. I also created a course fly-by video with the relive app, and you can view that, here: Rushmere parkrun course fly-by video.

finish / pb gong / my mud tan lines

There's a very strong possibility that I'll swing back past Rushmere parkrun one day - I love off-road courses plus I think it would be a fun day out for the family. But my main reason will, of course, be to beat my previous time and truly earn the right to strike the PB gong!

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